We may not like faith schools, but we should respect those who do

by Stephen Smith

There was much about Rob Marchant’s Labour Uncut piece on Monday, “Faith schools: a bad idea just got worse ”, that struck a chord with me. On closer reading, though, I felt a little uneasy about some of it.

The article addressed Michael Gove’s proposal to end the 20% limit on recruitment according to faith for faith schools which become academies. This would mean that an academy would then be able to restrict recruitment only to members of, for example, the Roman Catholic religion, or the Islamic religion.

Rob rightly raises serious concerns about this – it takes away what many would see as a key safeguard which prevents overly sectarian influence in our education system. Let’s not forget either that the proposed changes would also mean that these faith academies could receive 100% of their funding from the state, overriding, for example, the current requirement that voluntary aided schools must have at least 10% capital costs funded by the church. A state-sponsored Reverend Moon Academy doesn’t exactly sound like a vote winner  – but let’s hope that it wouldn’t meet the criteria for approval in the first place.

Rob misses an important aspect, though, which I don’t think Mr Gove has overlooked. Faith schools are very popular with quite a large number of people. And this move may play well to that audience.

The popularity of faith schools is not, by and large, down to any mass Damascene conversions amongst the nation’s parents or children. Often, it’s because these schools are perceived (even when it’s not actually the case) to have higher standards of discipline and behaviour, as well as academic achievement.

There are other, more complex reasons too – not all of them particularly community spirited. In many areas, faith schools are chosen as an alternative to what are seen as poor secular alternatives. And in some parents’ minds this equates to avoiding undue contact with an immigrant population – and of course in turn leads to further separatism in the schools which they avoid.

Perhaps worth noting as well are the non-Christian parents who place their children in Christian schools – in the past there were certainly many Muslim parents, in particular, who preferred their children to receive a religious education – even in a different religion – rather than a secular one.

So the assertion that faith schools are simply not good things might convince me, but will also alienate a large number of parents – and young people – who should really also be concerned about Michael Gove’s proposals. Polly Toynbee talks of the state’s duty to protect children from “pernicious views and doctrines” in schools; but article 14 of the UN charter which Rob refers to, whilst upholding the “right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, also upholds “the rights and duties of the parents” …  “to provide direction to the child”. In a free society, I’m afraid that means the right of a Christian, Muslim, or Jewish family to raise their child as a Christian, Muslim, or Jew . It would be intolerable if this were not so – it is one of the fundamental freedoms of our society – and I say this as a committed atheist.

The Christian denominations that I know do not accept children as full members until they are confirmed in the faith, usually in their early teens. The role of Bar/Bat Mitzvah in the Jewish faith is similar. I believe that other structures to allow the individual freely to choose their faith exist in all the major religions. One person’s “indoctrination” is another person’s “solid grounding” in morality and religion. We could argue otherwise, but that would be an attack on those religions, and we should not be surprised if people resist such attacks. And resent them.

Much as Rob Marchant and Polly Toynbee might prefer a wholly secular education system, the liberal, secular view is not universally accepted. Lots of people really do like faith schools. And some of them really are very good.

A particularly unhappy distraction is the conflation of faith schools with Muslim schools, Muslims with terrorism, and Muslim Schools with terrorist training camps. However strongly one stresses that any terrorists that arise because of Muslim schools are likely to be extremely rare, it remains a spurious argument, and one that it is unhelpful to make.

Back in the 70s – when the most serious terrorist threat came not from Al Qaeda but from the IRA, many fell into a similar trap. At my secular secondary school our “jokes” about the local Catholic school, were they learned bomb making and target practice. We equated faith schools with Catholic schools, Catholics with Irish people, and Irish people and Catholics with terrorists.

We were wrong.

Catholics school then were no more likely than any other to indoctrinate pupils in the ways of terrorism.

Muslim schools now are no more likely than any other to indoctrinate pupils in the ways of terrorism.

Michael Gove’s proposals to allow 100% recruitment on the basis of faith are a mistake. They encourage the fragmentation of society along sectarian lines. However small the influence towards that may be, it is a negative influence and we should resist it.

Stephen Smith, freelance educational consultant and former special school head teacher

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15 Responses to “We may not like faith schools, but we should respect those who do”

  1. Hi

    Thank you for this interesting piece. I grew up in Northern Ireland where I thing the highly segregated school system was an extremely significant player in the sectarian divide there.

    I as amazed at the contradiction in Cameron’s speech about “muscular liberalism”, which would appear that he wants people to integrate into British society. His education policies are designed to create sectarian division.

    Of course it would be crazy, as you have suggested, to say that a Muslim school might be linked to terrorism in some way, not for one second would I wish to suggest such a thing.

    But personally I am certain these religious schools will harvest sectarianism which exists in many forms and is very damaging to society.

  2. Robin Thorpe says:

    I left a comment on Rob Marchant’s article the other day and I am going to comment on a similar theme here. What you call “secular schools” are required by law to include Christian worship. The Church of England is the official state religion and so not only do the Bishops get a seat in the house of Lords but anglican hymns are sung in school assemblies and children pray to God at school. In the UK there is no such thing as a secular school.
    My personal view is that the state education system should not openly prefer any religion. That is not to say that there should be no faith schools, just that these schools should not be majority funded by the state. I do agree with your point that Muslim schools are unfairly castigated as arbiters of terrorism. I also agree that the rights of the parents to give their own guidance to the child are important; does that not justify the argument for removing the teaching OF religion from schools and simply teach children ABOUT religion? The choice is then left entirely to parents.

    As an aside, I always think it amusing to ponder the public reaction to starting a Communist School; I expect the public outcry would be trememendous.

  3. @dhothersall says:

    In my experience the overwhelming argument used in favour of faith schools is that they manage to deliver better education than other schools. Yet this is demonstrably a logical fallacy; it is not the faith aspect of the schools that delivers better educational outcomes, it is the combination of parental engagement, teacher motivation, community involvement and spirit, and other quantifiable factors.

    The reason we know this is that here in Scotland the distinction does not exist. ALL schools in Scotland are faith schools. The distinction here is instead between “non-denominational” and “denominational” schools. The first term refers to schools which deliver faith education according to the teachings of the Church of Scotland, the second those which deliver to other faiths (mostly Catholic, but a very small number of Islamic and Jewish).

    Yet despite all schools in Scotland being faith schools, the perceived distinctions remain in the eyes of parents and policymakers. Denominational schools generally have good reputations, non-denominational schools have poorer ones.

    So let’s stop pretending that this has anything to do with religion. The benefits we ascribe to faith schooling are really the benefits of increased parental and teacher engagement in a community-led environment. We can do this without religion. Why don’t we?

  4. Tacitus says:

    In my local village the children (and of course I include the parents) have a choice between a C of E school or a Roman Cathoic school. there is no state run educational unit. Both serve the village admirably well.

    parents who send their kids to the RC school understandably want to send them onto the local RC faith school but must pay the transport costs. Meanwhile C of E (or other faiths) are transported to state schools at no cost.

    Now where is the justice?

  5. Michael says:

    Just wondering; who is the ‘we’ to whom the title refers?

  6. Ian Stewart says:

    I liked your article, but I cannot agree. To me, faith should be separate from Education, and certainly state education. If any denomination wants to run its own schools, ideally this should surely be funded by them alone?

  7. Stephen Smith says:

    Typos corrected –

    Thanks all for such positive comments – I’ll try & respond to a few –

    Patrick – I think we’re in agreement – I just feel we need to acknowledge that some don’t agree for whatever reason. It’s good to get a perspective from NI where sectarianism in schools is, I guess, a somewhat bigger issue than in England.

    Similarly Robin – I agree – but many don’t. We could debate the semantics of what “secular” means – but I know what you’re getting at. I feel that in reality most non-faith state schools pay lip-service only to the “mainly Christian” ethos – which I feel was a sop to the Bishops in the Lords. The two schools I’ve been head of were certainly technically compliant with the requirement, but in most cases schools tend to interpret “mainly Christian” as “Caring and Considerate”, rather than any theological definition. We shouldn’t have to – but in practice it doesn’t seem to cause much of a problem.

    @dothershall – I’m slightly ignorant (actually more than just slightly) of the different situation in Scotland – are state schools CofS by default ? Or is it a similar “mainly Christian” ethos as in England & Wales ? I agree with what you say – it’s largely around parental perception.

    Tacitus – Similar strange anomalies crop up with children with special educational needs and transport from time to time, they do take some understanding.

    Your point also illustrates the difficulties in offering genuine choice in education in small rural communities – the choice generally is : If you don’t like it, move house.

    Michael – Good question – I’d say it refers to those of us who don’t like faith schools, but who should respect those who do. It’s not my intention to embrace any wider group – just that I agreed with Rob’s main point on faith schools, but felt that we should acknowledge the preferences of the many who do like faith schools. The “We” indicates my broad agreement with Rob.

    Ian – I believe that as well – but that would be to go against many many years of established practice, and would prove unpopular with many as well. The Church of England and Roman Catholic churches might well if that were the case run and fund their own schools – which I feel would be a further boost not just to religious schooling, but also to private education – personally I don’t want to do anything to encourage that.

    Thanks for reading

  8. Rachel says:

    Speaking as a “person of faith” myself, I see other risks if we moved to a situation where we had no public funding for faith schools.

    Look at the USA. The USA actually forbids state sponsorship of faith schools. The consequence is the multiplication of private faith schools and faith-motivated homeschooling. There is real demonisation of state education in the USA amongst even fairly moderate conservative faith groups. Since they have no opportunity to partake in the state system, all they can do is complain from the sidelines. This situation actually fuels religious fundamentalism.

    What I like about the set-up in the UK is that it actually mitigates against religious fundamentalism because it affords faith groups a stake in something we all value – ie. education – and in an environment where they aren’t just separated into a small group of children from the same “Independent Fundamentalist Separated Blood Bought Soul-Winning Baptist Church” background as their parents – as is the case in many parts of the Deep South/Bible Belt. In fact, there are Church of England Schools where up to 100% of children on roll are muslim.

  9. MatofKilburnia says:

    Not funding state run faith schools in no way infringes “the rights and duties of the parents” … “to provide direction to the child”. The parent can provide that education, but a standardised non-religious education gives all kids the chance to explore other avenues.

    Freedom of religion is dependent on freedom of others from it, and when it comes down to it in my view this includes one’s own kids.

  10. Rob Marchant says:

    Stephen/all, just to say I have really enjoyed reading all the above debate.

    Rather than take up a lot of space here and divert the debate, I have posted a full
    response to your piece on my blog, The Centre Left, and warmly invite you all to read and comment on it.

  11. Alex4768687 says:

    @Robin Thorpe


    First of all, you don’t know the difference between the UK an England. The CofE is certainly not the state religion in Scotland.

    To say ‘children pray to God at school’, well I went to school this millennium, and I did no such thing. I can’t speak for England, but I’m pretty sure this doesn’t happen.

    True, my school did have an local minister. He came about once a term (or year maybe I can’t remember), and it was hardly indoctrination stuff. You were perfectly free to no listen, or to not go.

  12. Stephen Smith says:

    Alex – I wouldn’t describe Robin’s statement as rubbish – C of E certainly isn’t the state religion in Scotland – but I do take the point that there is an established church in the UK – of which the Queen is the nominal head of. In England this is the Church of England.

    English and Welsh state schools are obliged to provide Religious Education – which should be of broadly Christian nature, as should the compulsory act of daily worship.

    Most schools do make this as inoffensive as possible – but the requirement is still there.

    At my last school our school prayer was “Thank you for our school, thank you for our friends, thank you for our families, thank you for looking after us. Amen”.

    Quite who we were saying thank you to I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess. No one ever complained about it. This in a school with a majority of Muslim pupils, and pupils from observant Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, and Zoro-Astrian families.

    I think you’re both sort of right.

  13. Ian Silvera says:

    “Rob misses an important aspect, though, which I don’t think Mr Gove has overlooked. Faith schools are very popular with quite a large number of people. And this move may play well to that audience”

    Just because something is popular, doesn’t make it right. Mr Merchant , I believe, isn’t ignorant of the popularity of faith schools, he’s being intellectually honest and showing them up to be the devise institution that they are.

    For clarity, the Liberal view is to allow faith schools to exist, like Tony Blair did. It should be the Left’s goal to end them.

  14. Stephen Smith says:

    Ian – Something being popular certainly doesn’t make it right – but in a democratic society it certainly helps you get elected – and even if it’s wrong, if we’re to allow freedom of choice – and I certainly believe we should, then we can’t easily, or morally, go around imposing our own supposedly superior knowledge on other people.

    I wouldn’t send my children to a religious school unless there was very little option

    There are lots of people who would – I think they’re wrong – but they have every right to do so – and defending that right will be a popular policy for Mr Gove.

  15. John says:

    There are many state funded Roman Catholic shools in Scotland (around 400), however despite many attempts over the past two decades to get state funding for an Islamic school in Glasgow to serve its thirty thousand Muslims, there are none, and never have been.

    This I find is very unfair, especially when there are state funded schools for Episcopalians and Jews, which serve far smaller communities.

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